In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hollywood had an unofficial “caste” system of casting, with the plum parts going to a select few, like Bogie, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Bill Holden. But if you want to expand your leading man repertoire beyond the usual suspects (and who doesn’t?), feast your eyes on Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden. They excelled at playing menacing dudes in gritty dramas, literally towering over their female co-stars at 6’4” and 6’5” respectively.
Ryan was born into a well-off Chicago family on November 11, 1909. Haunted by the death of his six-year-old brother when he was eight, Ryan was raised by overprotective parents. Eager to escape their suffocating surveillance, the teen fled to Dartmouth College, where he reigned as the school’s undefeated heavyweight boxing champion for three years. Following his 1932 graduation, Ryan worked a slew of decidedly un-Ivy League jobs – shoveling coal, herding horses – until the acting bug bit in 1938. He made two good pictures (Bombardier, Tender Comrade) and enlisted in the Marines, serving as a drill sergeant during World War II.
Hayden made his entrance on March 26, 1916, taking his stepfather’s surname after his father died when he was nine. A prep school dropout, Hayden ran away to pursue his passion for sailing, scoring low-level jobs on ships. A magazine photo of the strapping lad aboard a boat caught the eye of a Paramount producer, who signed Hayden to a contract in 1941. The studio promoted their new find as “The Beautiful Blond Viking God” (hey, no pressure!), but after making just two films, he too joined the Marines, winning a Silver Star in the process.
After the war, Ryan and Hayden found their niches in film noir. Despite his chilling portrayals of heavies and racists, Ryan was actually a progressive Democrat who campaigned for civil rights, and served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. In an interview shortly before he died in 1973, the happily married father of three remarked, “I’ve been lucky as hell with my career and my family.” (And from the Cool Random Facts File: Ryan sold his apartment in The Dakota to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.)
By contrast, Hayden was often broke, married five times (three times to the same woman), and held his profession in contempt: “There’s nothing wrong with being an actor, if that’s what a man wants. But there’s everything wrong with achieving an exalted status simply because one photographs well and is able to handle dialogue.” Another bracing Hayden quote: “There’s not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” (Sheesh!)
Ready to hit the Noir Boys’ bountiful movie buffet?
Check out Ryan’s Oscar-nominated role as an anti-Semitic killer in Crossfire and his riveting work in Act of Violence, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Set-Up and On Dangerous Ground. He’s also great in non-noirs like The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and The Wild Bunch.
Catch Hayden crushing it in The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and Crime Wave, plus memorable turns in the Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove (as wack-job General Jack D. Ripper), and The Godfather (as the crooked police captain Michael Corleone bumps off, courtesy of a pistol planted in the men’s room of a restaurant).